Category Archives: Spirituality

Jesus Wanders Wall Street

DSC_0191I’ve recently begun the book Jesus: A Historical Approximation by Spanish priest Jose Pagola. In it, Pagola examines Jesus’ life through different lenses, starting with “A Galilean Jew.” This first chapter lays out the Galilean context in which Jesus grew up and ministered. When read in light of my contemporary world, there are striking comparisons to be drawn between 1st century Galilee and 21st century America.

In 1st century Galilee, nearly 90% of people were peasants farming the incredibly fertile lands or fishing in the Sea nearby. Land ownership in such an agrarian society is the central question, and in Galilee most belonged to wealthy landowners. Pagola describes further:

“These large landerowners usually lived in the cities, rented out their lands to peasants in the area, and supervised them through administrators acting in their name. The leases were almost always very burdensome for the peasants. The owner demanded half or a significant portion of their production, which varied according to the results of the harvest…There are signs that in Jesus’ time, these large landowners were expanding their hldings with new lands from debt-ridden families, and coming to control a good part of Lower Galilee.”

Those farmers who owned their land desperately defended it. Indigent day laborers wandering for work became common. The producing majority provided for the ruling minority, with less and less in return to meet their own family’s needs. Through tributes, taxes, fees, and corruption hefty portions of any harvest disappeared to Rome, Jerusalem, and regional capitals — between a third and half of a given family’s production.

Debt loomed large as an inevitable result of even the most aggressive defenses against such collections, including a turn to monoculture for the most profitable crops. Pagola writes that “The Galilee Jesus knew was trapped in debt.” Losing one’s land meant losing a means of income, and many people turned to itinerancy, slavery, begging, and prostitution, or crime, which all rose in Jesus’ time.

The hallmark of Jesus’ Galilee was this massive (and growing) inequality between the peasants and the urban elite, composed of civil, economic, and religious leaders made rich by a brutal combination of exploiting the poor and violent oppression. Two new cities appeared in Galilee further straining the peasants as elites grew their wealth and prestige by appropriating more and more of the surrounding harvests. Courts ruled for the elites routinely when land foreclosures increased.

Pagola notes of all this that “…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites.”

You can see how Jesus ministered in a Galilean context similar to America today: economic inequality grows due to unjust policies set out by a ruling elite with little regard for the common good.

While not an agrarian society, recent decades have seen an increase in worker productivity for America’s industries not met with a commensurate rise in income. Wages remain stagnant, salaries low, and purchasing power dropping. Predatory lending and unaffordable higher education that is necessary for careers today has led to exorbitant debt for most Americans. Home foreclosures are similar to the land confiscations of Galilee, casting families into itinerancy and instability. Job losses and unemployment from an economy serving profit and not the common good compound all this.

Yet, for the top earners in America there are few problems. They have benefited from the economic system which favors unbelievable profits from risky investment practices while denying mothers the most basic food assistance for their hungry children.

What Pagola wrote of early 1st century Galilee, that”…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites” is similarly true of America today.

This is why Jesus message can be so powerfully proclaimed today: his ministry condemns the same excess and trends, while holding up the same people who have been marginalized and cast out. I find it helpful to quote Pagola at length here:

“Jesus’ activity in the Galilean villages and his message of the reign of God amounted to a strong critique of this state of affairs. His firm defense of the indigent and hungry, his preferential embrace of the least in that society, and his condemnation of the sumptuous life of the urban rich, were a public challenge to the socio-political program of Antipas [the ruler of Galilee]…his calls to have compassion on those who suffer and forgive their debts; and many other sayings can help us understand even today how Jesus shared the suffering of his people and how passionately he sought a new, more just and loving, world in which God would reign as Father of all.”

Having just returned from the Holy Land, the beauty of the Galilee is fresh in my mind. It is a land of unparalleled vegetation where Scriptures words of ‘a land of milk and honey’ comes vividly to life. Yet, when I meditated on all of this after reading Pagola’s chapter what came to mind was Jesus ministering in America. There is the Son of God walking down Wall Street casting out the investment bankers and perusing Congress’ halls  questioning why Republicans cut food stamps. There is Jesus healing the many homeless people I pass by while walking through DC and railing outside the Treasury building against anti-Gospel policies.

Why do we make the message so distant, as if 1st century Galilee and 21st century America are more different than they are similar. Sure, 2,000 years and host of cultural nuances separate my world from Jesus’ world — but the humanity in it all remains a constant thread. The inclination to narcissism and greed, apathy and indifference, fear and isolationism.

Most pointedly in the meditation, there is Jesus sitting across the table from me, staring as he asks why I continue to obfuscate Scripture’s message to justify my own unjust excesses.

-Bob

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Learning True Prayer

Driving along to lunch with a friend, I turned to C-SPAN radio as I drove south on the Beltway. Their broadcast of live floor debate from the House closely resembled some of the more unruly Model UN conferences I attended in high school.

Moderating this debate was a fatiguing task for the chairwoman, who quickly called successive representatives out of order, then yielding, more disorderly conduct, yielding again, outright shouting. Gaveling down unanimous consent requests, the situation devolved into a chaotic banter.

Disheartened, I listened on as our elected officials in the House held a nation captive in their petulance guised as ‘politicking’ and bickering passed off as floor debate. Suddenly, the chairwomen gaveled this buzz into recess. The airwaves silenced and I assumed the House simply shuttered itself to regain composure. A beat passed.

Then the C-SPAN announcer reported shots fired at the US Capitol building. Driving along I glanced to the right and saw the Capitol’s dome rising above a large office complex closer to me. I was far enough away to drive along unaffected, but close enough to begin tearing up at the violence ravaging this city.

Obvious examples like today’s incident when the ‘pop, pop, pop’ sounds were reported or the Navy Yard shooting only weeks ago come to mind, as do the ravages of gun violence in our communities that more frequently take lives by homicide and suicide.

Less obvious is the culture of DC filled with the violence of words and dehumanization that leads a Tea Party-backed Congressman to attack a Park Ranger for enforcing the shutdown he caused. It is a town fueled by a currency of profit and power over people’s lives when we literally allow people in the US to die daily because spending “must” be cut.

Minor partisan gains, or even simply ego, is hoisted as the god we worship in the District while we allow millions to go unfed, unclothed, uncared for, and unloved day after day after each fucking day. The dozens of homeless and marginalized individuals only yards from the offices and chambers of those who are leaders in name only cannot stir the consciences of politicians long ago purchased with corporate donations.

Perhaps almost six years trying to act justly and love tenderly in DC leaves my cynical and frustrated, but…

Is it really too fantastical to believe all would be welcomed with wide arms and open hearts? That all would be given their ‘daily bread,’ such that poverty’s afflictions were no more? That love is abundant enough our world could place the person first before all else, ending alienation from and enmity towards one another?

Lately, I’m unsure how to respond, how to act in changing DC’s violent dynamic – but in that, I’m learning true prayer. Driving along the Beltway to dinner, I can only tear up and offer God simple, visceral prayers. They’re not the polished prayers I’ve learned in theology nor crafted for ministry, and all they say is this:

We need Christ’s reconciling love.

–Bob

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Responding to Syria in the Spirit of Loretto

Statue at the Loretto Motherhouse, part of the Seven Sorrows of Mary brought over in the 19th century

Statue at the Loretto Motherhouse, part of the Seven Sorrows of Mary brought over in the 19th century

Chemical weapons. Napalm bombs. School children slaughtered. 100,000 dead. Violence in a most raw way pierces our otherwise sanitized media reporting and shakes world consciences as collectively we ask, “How did this happen, again?”

Talking with a close friend in the anti-mass atrocities community, he has repeated these past months that no one in government, no one in nonprofits, no one anywhere knows how to respond. All the writing, scholarship, plans, programs, funding, and political will conjured up by those who cried, “Never Again!” after the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur…the litany is unending, and all this is for nothing. The Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels persistently assail life without true challenge.

We simply cannot think up, never mind agree on, a viable solution to end the killings and begin a path to peace. This war and violence a world away brings spiritual turmoil in my deepest recesses. I am terrified with my personal inaction, with America’s apathy for three years, with a world paralyzed in the face of evil incarnated in massacres and gas attacks. What to do? It seems simple to affirm military intervention because it is something, rather than nothing. I know that it won’t lead to peace though, only greater destruction. The haunting question, “How to promote peace and nonviolence in Syria?” remains.

For guidance, I turned to the Sisters of Loretto. First called the “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross,” compassion is an enduring trait of this religious community who have been present on margins of all types. The word “compassion” is rooted in the Latin for “co-suffering” or “suffering with,” and this is precisely what so many Loretto sisters and co-members have offered to the world for two centuries. Educating ourselves is a first step, but we must follow by entering into others’ suffering through prayer and spiritual companionship. This is how we can be like Mary at Christ’s Cross, unable to cease his pain or to prevent his death, but radically present as he endures suffering. It is what I hope to offer to the people of Syria in my prayers.

Yet, Loretto members would fault me for ending there. Prayer has implications  that lead us to work for justice and act for peace, and the African proverb “When you pray, move your feet” is one lived out by these sisters and co-members. Coupling compassion with practical plans to seek change is not optional. But how to act when Syria is oceans away and my limited voice cannot change the course of an Obama administration bent on making war? Again, I look at the Loretto Community for guidance.

Many sisters are now retired (technically, because nuns never stop witnessing to God’s love) at the Motherhouse in Kentucky, leaving behind  careers and communities that altered our world for good. New circumstances have not stopped them from living peaceful witness, building up sustainable lifestyles, speaking out for justice (see their campaign against the Bluegrass Pipeline). These sisters educate me deeply in how we can live at the foot of others’ crosses even from a distance. Instead of focusing on my own impotence regarding Syria, I must focus on what I can do in this moment, this day, this weekend to create a peaceful planet.

Here’s what I conclude from all of this. Tonight, as I follow reports on Syria and keep pestering government leaders to walk us back from war, I will continue with my weekend plans. I will switch over from chemical cleaning products to homemade green ones. I will build up relationships with some new friends over dinner. I will join other Catholics at Mass on Sunday and pray, pray, pray in every moment. I will celebrate past labor victories this weekend, present of how much work remains. I will act for justice and work for peace where possible, and where I cannot I will sit like Mary, like the Loretto Community, at the foot of the Syrian people’s crosses in prayerful, present witness.

It is not a perfect fix, nor a solution to Syria (or the larger problem of mass atrocities and political violence), but it is what I can offer in this moment. I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, and  suggestions on how we respond to suffering when we cannot directly alleviate it or work to combat injustice.

–Bob

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Pope Francis the Child

Pope Francis, the Child with the other kids

A strange moment occurred this evening – the Pope made me cry.

Actually, this was not the first time a pope made me cry. Engaging the broader Catholic world since middle school, I personally knew of popes only in the repressive contexts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Tears then were from frustration and hurt about the inability of these two men, and the bureaucratic system behind them, to truly love as Christ did.

Tonight, the tears were peculiar though and the reasons behind them very different. As a blogger on Catholic LGBT issues for Bondings 2.0, I’ve closely followed Francis’ papacy as it begins. Cautious optimism accompanied an intellectualized understanding what this man may mean for Catholicism, but always kept at arm’s length from my interior life. Since March I wondered when the ‘other shoe’ would come crashing down from the Vatican, shattering the high hopes many gambled on Francis.

I often hear older friends speak of John XXIII as inspiring them in their 20s with his pastoral tone, joy and love, and openness to the world. I knew this phenomenon happened, but I could not relate in my life. I could not, thought attempting diligently, comprehend how a pope could be a source of inspiration (other than working to combat their misguided power) or contribute to my life positively. Tonight, that reality changed when I read of his actions with Italian students at Jesuit schools.

Tonight, the hope and optimism since Francis’ election came exuding out of me having pierced my interior life against all efforts to separate them. His consistency with being Catholic and challenging our world, while expressing love and pastoral care unbridled by regulation seems genuine. It seems real and lasting, and for the first time I glimpse at John XXIII’s impact on those in their 20s during Vatican II. I read these words, spoken to the students:

“When a student doubting his faith asked for words of encouragement, he likened the faith a long walk. ‘To walk is an art,’ he said, ‘To walk is the art of looking at the horizon, thinking about where I want to go but also enduring the fatigue. And many times, the walk is difficult, it is not easy… There is darkness… even days of failure… one falls…

“‘But always think this: do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking, what is important is not avoiding the fall but not remaining fallen…Get up quickly, continue on, and go…But it is also terrible to walk alone, terrible and boring. Walking in community with friends, with those who love us, this helps us and helps us get to the end.’”

Throwing protocol out, Francis answered ten unscripted questions from children after calling prepared remarks “a little boring.” One student today said, “You are like a child.” It made me call to mind Matthew 19 where Jesus says of the children, at first being driven away by the religious authorities, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them: for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Maybe that is the blessing of Francis. He reached out to God’s children, spoke to them with a tenderness and simplicity we hear Jesus preach in because its roots are true love. He speaks to the difficulties faith entails in an honest way, not pretending Catholic life is always joyful or rewarding and allowing for doubt, even falling. In a world torn apart by superficiality and disposability (another theme he’s been mentioning!), Pope Francis is preaching authentically with the people in our language and speaking to those most deep and unarticulated desires sometimes best expressed through the eyes of childhood.

For the first time in my 23 year old life, a pope inspires me and calls me to more as a Catholic with his witness. Where this journey ends is unknown, and certainly Pope Francis and I do not agree on everything – yet, my hope grows because Pope Francis the Child is a companion on our common journey and not a papal father from above.

–Bob

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